In Search of the Modern Antiquities Collector

Updates at the bottom of the post

Someone dropped me a line asking about collecting antiquities; he was trying to compile a list of solid blogs about the subject, and in order to be balanced was trying to come up with a good one on the pro collecting side ... but couldn't.

There are a lot of bad blogs written by people in favour of collecting about that subject who may see themselves as modern day versions of Sir William Hamilton, but I suspect that he'd be horrified by their gobbledygook. And there some good blogs that occasionally write about collecting as not necessarily a bad thing. The closest I could suggest was Tiffany Jenkins' blog where she posts articles she has written.*

Although there are lobbying groups broadly against collecting, there is no reputable pro collecting group at the moment to put the other side of the case.

Journalists regularly get in touch when they're writing articles either about looting or about collecting; some even realise that the two are connected.  I have to be honest I tend to end up making bland general statements about the collectors, partly because there are fewer and fewer who publicise the fact that they collect, and mostly because if I knew of anything illegal they were doing I'd tell the police not a journalist.

So what about the collectors themselves?

I have a great deal of respect for the late Leon Levy, and for his wife Shelby White. They put together a great collection, and although a few researchers like to throw around accusations, I feel that they collected ethically. Yes, a few pieces did turn out to be looted, but these were a minute percentage of the collection, particularly in comparison with contemporary collectors such as the Fleichmans.  My experience is that Mrs White has always dealt properly with credible claims against antiquities, and she is a big donor to academic research, for example funding this recent project:
Archaeological Archive to be Publicly Accessible for the First Time in 135 Years - Archaeological Institute of America

Mrs White no longer actively collects. The Fleichmans sold their collection. I know very little about Michael Steinhardt's collection other than the scandal about the phiale, and his age puts him in the older generation. 

There are quite a number of younger collectors of antiquities out there, but most choose not to publicise their collections. This isn't a 'conspiracy' where they are 'hiding' horrible secrets; they are happy to lend to exhibitions, but genuinely prefer to keep a low public profile. For example the buyer of the Crosby Garrett Helmet; someone at Christie's was quite happy letting people 'discretely' know his identity, but my understanding is that he thinks this is not people's business.

Insomnia led me to Google, where out of curiosity I put in "antiquities collector" and wondered what would come up about people who are happy to publicise their collections. Articles about long dead collectors from the Renaissance. A profile of Shlomo Moussaieff (he was 72 in 1996, so of the older generation, more interested in Judaica than antiquities per se). Lots of articles about collector who turned out to have bought dodgy items and were having to return them, and so forth.

Then this article by Feargus O’Sullivan: Lost treasures - FT.com. I had a lengthy chat with the Feargus. Since I couldn't think of another active collector who actively sought publicity, I suggested he get in touch with Christian Levett ... and that seems to have become the default position for journalists writing about collectors of antiquities.

Like Levy and Steinhardt, Levett has a hedge fund. Lots of hedge funders hit their 40s, have a mid life crisis, trade their wives in for a younger model, and start buying sports cars.

Levett went instead for buying antiquities, which is a more erudite choice, and describes himself as "a complusive collector". He also bought Minerva Magazine off Jerome Eisenberg, and set up something named the Mougins Museum of Classical Art to house some of his collection. I do not know of any successful demand for the restitution of an object from his collection. He seems a model collector of antiquities, and that was why I suggested Feargus O’Sullivan speak to him.

Levett actively buys, and he isn't geriatric, so he should be the poster boy for 'good' young collectors. It would be great if he were a model collector but ... although he has not, to my knowledge, done anything 'wrong' in the sense of doing the things collectors are often criticised for, such as buying looted art, even if inadvertently, I am not sure I feel comfortable describing him as a collector.

Levett told me, verbally and in emails, that he sold off items from his collection (this is not problematic, nor unusual), and that his plan long-term included being a dealer, and elaborated on this. Again, I have no problem with people choosing to be antiquities dealers as long as they try to be both ethical and observe the law. My issue is that I am not sure if he is buying as a collector or if he is gathering stock; whether his private museum or a gallery to display his wares for sale.

The Hunt brothers tried to corner the market in not just silver but ancient coins, and proved the old joke that the best way to make a small fortune in the art market was to start off with a large one. Levett seems far brighter, and maybe he will succeed and become one of the great dealers.

In any case, I feel he is possibly speculating rather than collecting, so I'm not sure whether he should be counted as a collector.

If we suspend Levett from the very short list of one he was on, we seem to be left with no non-retirement age serious collectors of antiquities who are happy to publicise the fact that they collect. And this is a problem because traditionally collectors were the ones, like Leon Levy and Shelby White, who would fund museums, excavations and archaeological research. There are collectors who prefer to keep a low profile about their own collections whilst still funding museums and research, but increasingly collectors are withdrawing from contact with many academics. They are tired of the accusations constantly thrown at them by the various cultural property bloggers, accusations which are often more insinuation than fact, and so we as a field are losing them.

Dealers buy items to make money from it. Collectors buy items for the pleasure they give them, and the escape the hobby provides them for their work. Cultural property bloggers often serve a valuable purpose highlighting problems and illegality in the field of antiquities dealing and collecting; but they also often find problems in the field that don't exist.

Collectors have always had a symbiotic relationship with archaeologists, funding the first excavations and building the first museums. Yes, the way sites were dug for art to be sold and shipped to rich collectors in the 18th century is not acceptable today, but I also feel that by rejecting and disparaging collectors the way some archaeologists have so publicly done will only harm the field in the long term.

Rather than making gross generalisations about looting and collecting, I believe we'd be better off helping collectors to collect ethically material which is legally on the art market and not looted from an archaeological site that was destroyed in the process. That was part of my logic behind setting up www.LootBusters.com, although there is so much material reported stolen I admit I can barely keep up with it.

The lack of a passionate collector of serious antiquities under the age of 60, who is willing to go 'on the record' as being a collector worries me a great deal. Collectors may be amateurs, but they have always been the financial backbone of archaeology. Without them, grants and funding will fall off a fiscal cliff, so I hope the tide turns soon and that more archaeologists extend a hand to them and lead them down the right path when it comes to collecting.**

Quick update -

1) One person's response seemed to focus solely on assuming that I was saying a "collector = good and a dealer = bad" ... I was not, and although those may be his views, they are not mine, and I object to his projecting in that way. I don't equate a dealer with being bad. I also am annoyed that this minor point became an issue, when the post was trying to point out that I believe demonising collectors will also cause problems for archaeology. As long as they don't harm others, I don't really worry about what others choose to do.

2) Paul Barford very kindly shared a few thoughts. He rightly pointed out I mean "millionaire collector[s]" ... although the way prices are going up for decent pieces with solid provenances, I suspect it won't be long before it turns into billionaire. He also pointed out that: "material which is legally on the art market" is by no means "ethical" - and again he is correct, but getting just the illegal stuff off the market would be a start. He also pointed out that not all collectors want help, and again this is true ... but I guess I was more annoyed about collectors who ask for help and get an earful.

Here's an example: lots of men I know like to fantasize that they are not bankers, but are in fact Indiana Jones, so a surprising amount of them want to go on an excavation. They generally don't have any archaeological training, so a normal student dig wouldn't work even if the university would take them on (and they won't take either collectors or dealers). My attitude to them is different. Firstly if they are collectors, I think it's good for them to know a bit about digging, and to make them aware of the importance of finding items in context. Secondly, I feel that as long as bankers are willing to make a donation large enough to make baby-sitting them on a dig worthwhile, I have absolutely no problem using them in this way as a way of raising funds to help finance an excavation. They get some tales to tell at dinner parties, we get much-needed cash to fund real digging.

I also believe that a surprising number of collectors are not aware of all the issues to do with provenance and looting, and are generally happy to learn about it. The clincher with hedge funders, I find, is that when you explain to them that if they paid $ x for item y, then if y turns out to be looted from country z, not only will they have to return y to country z, but they'll loose $ x and have a harder time clawing it back that Bernie Madoff's investors. One can question their ethics, but most understand financial equations.

Once more unto the update, dear readers ...

Paul Barford blogged his views here, and he, a collector I know and various others were kind enough to discuss this post via email. Sorry PD, but my cousin is mostly a "coiney" ... and the pro collecting blogs he regularly sites are, as I am sure he himself is aware, not representative of collectors, but rather a few extremists who like to scream into the vacuum of the internet because everyone else ignores them.

Yes, I probably came across as a complete snob by only writing about "millionaire collectors" and not the many people with small collections that they cherish. I genuinely did not mean to, and I will try to explain why below. I have a small collection of antiquities ancient coins myself including some rather nice lamps, and I know many similar collectors - some through Coincraft, my father's company, some through life in general. I meant them no disrespect.

Firstly I think that it is hard to generalise about collectors, since they come in every shape and form, and it is clear that I was writing about a type of collector / patron that existed in my parents' generation but seems to be lacking in mine.

I should also explain my thought process. I studied under Geoffrey Waywell, who wrote a number of books on the Classical Tradition and collecting in England, and my friend Elizabeth Angelicoussis is very active in this field too.

My thought process started with these earlier collections - for example Thomas Hope, whose London house was open to the public, moving through them into the present day.

Then I tried to come up with a "Top 10 Antiquities Collectors" which was easy to do for my parents' generation, but harder to do for mine - and impossible for me to blog about because not a single one of them seems to be willing to publicise their collections. They happily lend to exhibitions, and let scholars see items, but for a variety of reasons don't go out of their way to tell people (and potential burglars) what they have at home. Top 25? Similar issues. Top 50? eeek ... and that's where I wrote the blog post.

I think the telling point is that the post generated one comment at the bottom, and most people felt more comfortable discussing it in emails.


* Disclaimer: I should state that although I hate smuggling and the looting of archaeological sites, and some of the nefarious dealers (eg Medici), I support the legal collecting of antiquities with clear provenances. My father Richard Lobel is a coin dealer, a cousin by marriage has an extremely good collection of antiquities, and I knew Leon Levy (my step-father worked for him, then went into partnership with him), etc. I know quite a few dealers, and quite a few collectors, and most - although not all - I would describe as scrupulous people. I genuinely believe that most of them try to behave both legally and ethically, and whilst some academics are against collecting in any form and like to throw mud at them, collecting itself is allowed under the law.
Update - I had dinner with Levett twice in mid 2009, but have no other relationship to him or his companies. He was subsequently helpful when I was looking for the head looted from Sabratha (he didn't have it), and his employees email me regularly about a whole host of issues.
I have had a long term relationship with Mr Levy and Mrs White, and so I do know enough to feel comfortable categorically stating that many of the accusations I have read about them on certain blogs are wrong.

** -  did I mention that I only slept one hour last night, and that's what I blame for the record-breaking number of cliches I managed to fit into that sentence.


  1. Excellent post! Not ALL collectors are thoughtless and unethical. Many of them are deeply passionate about history and collect old objects as an emotively physical and intellectual way of engaging with it, while fully recognising the vital importance of the archaeological record and scrupulously shunning any acquisition or action that may damage it. Tarring ALL collectors with the same brush - stereotyping them to the lowest common denominator - and demonising them will only serve to alienate or even decimate a section of the population that traditionally has been one of the greatest supports for museums and archaeological research.

    Get the message about preserving the archaeological record across by all means but let's bear in mind that a thoughtful and ethical collector can be an ally, not an enemy.

    (I am relatively young myself and used to collect antiquities at one time - though not quite in the rarefied stratosphere that you are posting about: http://www.romulus2.com/lamps/)


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